Akemi's Anime World

Akemi’s Anime Blog AAW Blog

Why can’t video games be more subtitle-fan friendly?

I regularly watch anime in Japanese and English, but I rarely play Japanese video games with the original audio. Why? There are no real subtitles. Unlike anime DVDs/Blu-rays, which have a subtitle track specifically intended to be used with the Japanese audio, video games consistently only include captions of the English dub dialog (“dubtitles” if you will). This is problematic for multiple reasons; the captions may not quite represent what’s being said in Japanese, the captions aren’t timed to the original audio and several sections of a game can go entirely untranslated.

Most dubs of Japanese video games seem faithful enough, but even if the translation is well adapted for spoken English, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a good subtitle script. The captions aren’t even timed to the original audio. They look fine when the English audio is on, but with the Japanese track the captions can seemingly disappear and reappear at random.

Two Japanese games I’ve checked out recently are Vanquish and El Shaddai. There are some broad and artificially gruff-sounding voices in the dub for Vanquish so I tried to play the game in Japanese. I started off in a room for the in-game tutorial, where all the spoken instructions went entirely untranslated. Granted a brief note in English popped up that told me what to do, but I realized if I played the game in Japanese, any spoken dialog during the chaotic gameplay, including instructions or objectives, would go untranslated. The captions only come on during cut scenes.

This is a similar problem for Ed Shaddai. For example, save points are represented by a guardian angel named Lucifel who you can hear speaking directly to God when you approach him (on a cell phone no less- must be a direct line). There are no captions for Lucifel’s dialog so that little quirk in the original game’s script is lost if you choose the Japanese audio and don’t know the language. Thankfully the dub doesn’t sound bad- the dry yet casual way Lucifel speaks to God is amusing- but that’s not really the point. I want the option to watch and fully enjoy both versions, like I can with my anime DVDs.

That leads me to my ultimate question: why? Why can’t an additional script be made for the Japanese audio? I understand it would take extra time, effort and cost, but I have a hard time believing it would be cost-prohibitive. I imagine the real reason smacks of lazniess and the original audio is being included as an afterthought.

I can only guess that back in the PS2 era when bilingual Japanese games started coming out, the percentage of gamers who wanted authentic subtitles was small enough to ignore. After around 10 years the industry and consumers seem complacent with the status quo. That’s very unfortunate because it’s now nigh-impossible to affect that change in the video game industry. As it stands the only time we can hope to see an authentic script translation for Japanese dialog in video games is when a game is released without a dub, like the recent Yakuza games for the Playstation 3. Not exactly an appealing prospect.

Has anyone ever encountered a bilingual Japanese game that had an option for a closer translation of the original dialog?

Three Kinds of Awesome

After finishing up Durarara!, in the process of roughing out a proper review I had one of those moments where I found neat, oversimplified boxes into which to artificially categorize the world, which is a personal hobby of mine. In this case, my tidy categorization is one prefaced by “There are three kinds of awesome things in anime:”

Note here that I’m talking about the colloquial kind of awesome, as in “Dude, that was awesome.” Whether you talk like that or not, you probably know the feeling I’m talking about here.

This does not count, of course, many things I love because of their artistic vision or unbridled imagination and craftsmanship—most works of Miyazaki, for example, or films by Makoto Shinkai. Those are great artistic works that tickle a different part of my brain; I’m talking about the things that  get my fanboy love of anime going, and make me want to buy cels or rant to friends about how much fun they are.

So, my three categories: Things that give me exactly what I want, things that give me what I didn’t know I wanted, and things that make me ask for the unlikely (or impossible), then give it to me.

The first group is obvious—anime that give me exactly what I’ve always wanted to see. For example, I’ve often mused that it would be awesome to have a story in which the mastermind villain was a good guy. Code Geass: Boom, awesome (leaving aside R2 sawing its own legs off). Or, being an avid paper-and-dice role player, I’ve long loved the idea of a character with the stats of a barbarian but trained as a mage (a friend of mine actually played one once). Rune Soldier Louie: Boom, awesome.

The second group is sort of the opposite of that—shows that give me something I didn’t think I would be interested in, but turns out to be awesome in execution. Spice and Wolf tops this list. Fantasy about a wayward wolf god and a merchant wandering around a mundane fantasy world? Might be interesting, but sounds boring and depressing at worst and melancholy at best. In reality? Awesome.

Daphne in the Brilliant Blue: Oh, great, yet another sci-fi show about a bunch of overarmed, over-violent, over-endowed women doing odd jobs and blowing stuff up. With an amnesiac protagonist for bonus generic anime points. Probably not even worth a shot. In practice, so mercilessly vicious it’s awesome.

And then there’s that third category, which I hadn’t put my finger on until Durarara! Specifically it’s when a show—good or bad—introduces some character or concept that causes you to muse “Wouldn’t it be awesome if that happened?” while in no way expecting the writer to actually go there, because that’s just too wacky or uncommercial or against-cliche or whatever. And then having that be exactly what happens.

Ultimate case in point: Celty. “Okay, there’s a headless harbinger of death riding around Tokyo on a possessed motorcycle doing odd jobs, and she’s a good guy? That’s pretty sweet, but wouldn’t it be awesome if she were a main character?” With the implied follow through”…but no show would actually do that.” Bam: The closest thing the show has to a main character through the whole first season. Awesome.

Other, less-extreme examples (these are pretty much all big spoilers, by the way):

Mission E. Code E was pretty entertaining, but somewhere in the back of my head was the musing “Wouldn’t it be awesome if Chinami went on to become a superhero?” I of course would have expected some sort of transition, but regardless, Mission E: Chinami, badass superspy. Whatever else the series did right or wrong, that’s pretty darn awesome.

Full Metal Panic, which had me saying, “Fun, sure, but it would be awesome if they just cut out the drama entirely.”  Fumoffu—bingo, awesome. Ghost Hound—creepiest therapist ever, who seems strangely helpful. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if he turned out to be a good guy?” Answer: My favorite character in the show.

Of course, that last category overlaps a little with the other two, but whatever. There are also dozens of examples I can think of of things that have me thinking the same thing that don’t follow through on it, but I suppose that’s what makes it so satisfying those rare occasions when something does.

The Light Novel Quality Boom

I’ve noticed that recently a significant majority of the anime series I’ve enjoyed most are based on light novels—Spice and Wolf, Baccano!, and Toradora, to name a few (the first two of those were both winners of the Dengeki Novel Prize, in fact). Novel-based anime is nothing new—Vampire Hunter D and The Dirty Pair are both based on novels. But, when I look at older stuff, a much larger percentage seems to be based on manga than is the case now. And even if the ratio hasn’t changed, I can say for sure that the proportion of good prose-based anime to bad is markedly better than that of good manga-based anime.

Which, if you think about it, makes a lot of sense; assuming most up-and-coming manga artists write their own material (which seems to be generally if not universally true of Japanese mangaka), someone who is a good artist but mediocre storyteller is a whole lot more likely to get published than someone who’s a good storyteller but mediocre artist. In contrast, if you’re a novelist, the only thing you’ve got to be good at is spinning a yarn.

So, since most anime draws from either manga or novels as source material, the anime that draws from manga is, on average, going to be drawing from a pool with a significant percentage of things that got popular due to what they look like more than their story. Novel-based anime, however, is almost by definition going to be based on something with a worthy story. And, since you’re going to have a team of professional artists working on the anime either way, the novel-based material is going to have the upper hand in everything but a foundation in visual storytelling. Light novels are an additional advantage versus “heavy” novels, in that they tend to be shorter and less intellectual, which is going to translate more readily into a TV format. They also have accompanying illustrations already extant, so there is some visual identity to build off of.

Obviously there are plenty of great manga-based anime series, and novel-based duds (say, Kanokon), but on average it makes sense to me that novel-based anime has the statistical upper hand when it comes to telling a compelling story. Which is why I’m glad to see more and more anime based on light novels—bodes well for the future of the medium, and industry.

In terms of hard numbers, skimming through my personal list of five-star anime, I see four based on manga, six original concepts, and  a whopping eight based on novels of one sort or another. That compares to zero based on novels in the 2-star range. My personal top ten contains two novel adaptations, three manga adaptations, and the remainder are anime originals—less impressive, but still skewed heavily away from manga.

As an aside, what the heck is a “light novel,” anyway? The page count and physical size isn’t significantly different from “heavy” novels, and it’s not that unusual for Japanese novels to have a few illustrations, so I suppose it has more to do with the general style of a series of shorter stories spread across a number of books, as opposed to single, tightly-packed, standalone stories. You could also make the argument that light novels are targeted at a demographic and style usually served by anime and manga, but that’s a little unfair to the medium (not to mention rather meaningless, if you factor in josei and seinen adult-targeted manga—all you’ve ruled out as an audience are old-timers). The genre is probably most closely paralleled by the Borders category “young adult” fiction, though it’s not a perfect match.

If you believe the US publisher of the Boogiepop novels, Boogiepop is what got the light novel trend started back in 1998, and even if not there’s another great series based on novels rather than manga. That date also aligns with the increase in such novels and their anime spinoffs since.